Mr. Carson’s Character Development

Though many characters grow throughout Mary Barton, Mr. Carson’s Bildungsroman is perhaps the most notable. While he is not a main character, his change of heart is the greatest. In the beginning, Mr. Carson is the factory owner and the father of Mary’s fling, Harry Carson, and known for being a cruel and power hungry master. When a fire burns down his factory, he is not worried for “the insurance money would amply pay” and lays off his workers, including Mr. Wilson. Mr. Carson is not concerned with the “deep, terrible gloom” of “no wages to pay for the bread the children cried aloud for in their young impatience suffering” (95). For the rich, no work meant “leisure” that was a “pleasant thing” and meant “happy family evenings” (95). Rich families, including Mr. Carson’s, do not attempt to understand the intense weight of having no money. Rather than compensating for lost time, because the factory workers need it so badly, it is considered a luxury to not work. Meanwhile, Davenport falls ill and Wilson goes to the Carson’s to ask for medicine. Mr. Carson fails to recognize his name and doesn’t “pretend to know the names of the men [he] employ[s],” even though Davenport had worked for him for three years. He is unconcerned with the needs of his workers while in this time period, the people working in the factories need all the help they can get.

Carson continues to be ignorant of the workers’ conditions and needs until it directly affects him in the murder of his son, Henry. After he finds out his son has been shot, he reverts to using his money. He offers a “handsome reward [that] might accelerate the discovery of the murderer” (273). Rather than grieving his son’s death, comforting his hysterical wife or reflecting on how short life is, Mr. Carson seeks vengeance on the murderer: “My son! My son…but you shall be avenged, my poor murdered boy” (277). It is “a speedy conviction, a speedy execution” that “seemed to be the only things that would satisfy his craving thirst for blood” (286). This shows immaturity, recklessness and again a lack of concern for those around him. The death of his son has not so far as changed Mr. Carson but rather encouraged him to use his power and money to further fight fire with fire.

At the trial, Mr. Carson shows glimpses of emotions when he contemplates over his son’s love of Mary. He “abhorred her and her rumored loveliness” and “grew jealous of the love with which she had inspired his son” (402). Instead of pitying her and considering her loss of her “lover,” he felt a “severe” “satisfaction” when she is about to come testify against Jem. The narrator leaves out his reaction when the court rules Jem not guilty, maybe because the reader is not concerned with Mr. Carson at the moment—only Mary and Jem— or because his emotion would bring down the happiness of the reader. It is not until several chapters later that the narrator explores the reactions of Mr. Carson. This is when Mr. Carson has a change of heart and actually considers another person’s point of view: “But suddenly, while he was deliberating, and searching for motives which should be effective to compel him to exertion and action once more…suddenly I say, the thought arose within him that more yet remained to be learned about the circumstances and feelings which prompted John Barton’s crime” (466-7).

He then calls for Will Wilson and Job Leigh to help Mr. Carson understand. Once they explain it to him, the first thing he says is, “Now how in the world can we help it?” (471). Instead of getting angry or blowing them off as he might have done earlier, he asks what he can do. This shows immense growth in Mr. Carson’s character. He allows Wilson and Job to explain John Barton’s reasons and thanks them “for speaking candidly” about “the power, or want of power in masters, to remedy the evils the men complain of” (474). The death of Henry opened his eyes to the hurt, hunger and hate that ultimately comes from being poor and knowing there is nothing one can solely do about it. Yet with the power that Mr. Carson has from being a master and having money, he understands how he is one of the people who can actually do something about it. This development in Mr. Carson is a total change in his character. This gives the reader hope because of this growth. Mr. Carson is not a main character but he is an impressionable character because of his Bildungsroman.

Accepting Kindness

Kindness is a big focus for Elisabeth Gaskell in her novel Mary Barton. In fact, it is the main point she tries to make, with Job Legh telling Mr. Carson “If we saw the masters try for our sakes to find a remedy… [even if they] could only say, ‘Poor fellows, our hearts are sore for ye;…’ – we’d bear up like men through bad times” (474). Here Job is asserting that all the poor want from the upper classes is kindness and sympathy. Kindness is used in other ways throughout the novel though, with the poor helping each other. In this Gaskell ends up showing that it is just as important to accept the kindness of others as it is to give it out.

Gaskell establishes both John and Mary Barton as kind individuals willing to help their fellow men. When Wilson comes to ask John for money to help the dying Mr. Davenport, John asserts he has no money. After he takes a bit of food to the suffering family, however, he goes and gathers up all the belongings he can spare and “pawned them for five shillings” (98). Even in the beginning when he said he had no money to spare, he was still willing to spare some food for the suffering family. Then, upon seeing the extreme case of the Davenports, he went and sold what he could to help them. This shows a kindness and willingness to help, something that Mary also shares.

When Mary hears about the murder of the younger Mr. Carson, she is distraught mainly because she suspects Jem of being the murderer. On her way home after hearing this, she runs across a hungry boy on the road who asks for food. At first she claims that “hunger is nothing” and rushes past, but then “her heart upbraided her… and she hastily entered her door and seized the scanty remnant of food which the cupboard contained, and she retraced her steps” to go give the food to the boy (296-297). Mary is shown here to be kind of heart as well, but both she and her father have trouble accepting kindness in return.

Job says “John Barton was not a man to take counsel with people” showing that he did not get advice from others (470). He also did not accept money from his union, wishing it to go to other families instead. So when he was the one in need, he did not get help, he just retreated further into himself. Mary has the same inclination. When Jem is considered to be a murderer, she feels that she has to clear his name and that she has to do it all by herself. In this mind set, Margaret offers Mary money to help Jem. Mary does accept it, but reluctantly taking it “for Jem”, but not even taking all the money offered (333). This causes Margaret to expound upon the idea of kindness.

Margaret claims that we should say ‘let others do unto you, as you would do unto them” (333). She asserts that helping others can make one happy and that depriving them of the ability to help hurts them. This shows a bit of where the Bartons have been going wrong. John thinks he has to do things by himself, but that only makes him more irritable and angry towards the world, to the point of even hitting his daughter. Mary runs around trying to save Jem only to end up fainting at his trial from exhaustion and needing to be tended to by strangers. Gaskell seems to be saying that, while the upper class does need to step up and help the poor, the poor also need to accept the help and perhaps even ask for it, if not from the unhelpful lawmakers than at least from their neighbors.

Kindness is shown throughout Mary Barton, and the intricacies of it help to show not only that the poor are kind to each other and that the rich should be kind to them too, but also that they need to accept kindness so that they don’t end up getting hurt in the end.

Wagging Tongues, Working Women: Gossip in Cranford and Mary Barton

People will talk.

Elizabeth Gaskell understood firsthand that gossip was a common feature of Victorian society, and she uses it to narrative advantage in both Cranford and Mary Barton. Yet the kinds of gossips she employs are very different: in Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous and even redemptive; in Mary Barton, gossip becomes the twisting and the destruction of the truth. These different kinds of gossips reflect two contrasting communities: the mutually supportive small-town community of idle women, and the hardened, desperate, and uneducated community of the working class.

American WWII propaganda poster. "Tell NOBODY - not even HER" by The National Archives UK - Tell NOBODY - not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

American WWII propaganda poster. “Tell NOBODY – not even HER” by The National Archives UK – Tell NOBODY – not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous, although Gaskell sometimes uses it as an instrument of humor. For example, when the ladies of Cranford are panicking about being robbed, “every time [Miss Pole] went over the story, some fresh trait of villainy was added to their appearance” (Cranford 95). The story becomes so exaggerated that it turns into a fabulous fiction, as entertaining to the storyteller as the listeners. However, her exaggerations have merely comic consequences.

Likewise, Gaskell takes the opportunity to “redeem” gossip when Miss Matty falls on hard times. In the ladies’ show of generosity, there are still several little confidences: “Of course this piece of intelligence [from Miss Pole] could not be communicated before Mrs. Fitz-Adam,” and then Mrs. Forrester approached the narrator “at the entrance to the dining parlour; she drew me in, and when the door was shut, she tried two or three times to begin on some subject,” and then “Mrs. Fitz-Adam… had also her confidence to make” (136-137). These instances of private communication do not have any detrimental effects on Cranford society; they are merely a fact of life, and Gaskell expects us to smile along with the development of her characters’ wagging tongues.

In Mary Barton, however, gossip becomes a malicious force, capable of destroying Mary. The gossip centers around Sally Leadbitter and the girls at the dress shop, and it becomes (figurative) vitriol. At the beginning, Sally’s gossip eggs Mary into the love affair with Henry Carson, which becomes the central factor responsible for Jem’s arrest in the murder case and the central tarnish on Mary’s character. When Mary wants to break up with Carson, Sally twists the truth, encouraging him to keep pursuing her. She “laughed in her sleeve at them both, and wondered how it would all end– whether Mary would gain her point of marriage, with her sly affectation of believing such to be Mr. Carson’s intention in courting her” (135). Because Sally is incapable of innocence, she is unable to recognize it in others; thus, her gossip continually twists the truth to fit her own character and entertainment.

When Carson is murdered, Sally turns the weapon of gossip against Mary, blaming her in front of all the girls: She “made no secret now of Mary’s conduct, more blameable to her fellow-workwomen for its latter changeableness, than for its former giddy flirting. ‘Poor young gentleman,’ said one, as Sally recounted Mary’s last interview with Mr. Carson….’That’s what I call regular jilting,’ said a third. ‘And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!'” Mary’s character assassination is now complete, and the reader is left with the feeling that if such is said to Mary’s face, much worse must be said behind her back.

What makes the difference between these two gossips? Is it that Sally Leadbitter is not constrained by the rules of aristocratic society? Is it merely that more is at stake in the melodramatic and murderous gossip of Mary Barton than in the quotidian everyday happenings of Cranford? Or is the survival-of-the fittest society in Mary Barton to blame? Perhaps, for Gaskell, it is a combination of all these factors. Either way, she seems to accept gossip as a fact of society– people simply will talk about one another– and to draw the line in the content and intent of the gossip itself.

Mary Barton and Manly Tears: Why Women Should Stay Home and Men Shouldn’t Cry

“But he stayed long there, nad at last his sturdy frame shook with his strong agony. The two women were frightened, as women always are, on witnessing a man’s overpowering grief….Mary’s heart melted…putting her hand softly on his arm, said:

‘O Jem, don’t give way so; I cannot bear to see you.’

Jem felt a strange leap of joy in his heart…when her soft hand’s touch thrilled through his frame…he could almost hate himself for it; with death and woe so surrounding him, it yet was happiness, was bliss, to be so spoken to by Mary” (Barton 78-79).

Jem, you better not be crying! I'm the only one allowed to pout in this novel!

Gaskell’s portrayal of sensitive men and acute women is a strange flipping of tables throughout Mary Barton. The first half of the novel — though concerned with the plight of the poor and the sad, frequent deaths of those without luxury — spends a considerable amount of time creating sensitive men and hardened women.

Gaskell gives ’em tears and pouts, none of which do any good. It is as if an industrial town and the forced awareness of economy creates men and women incapable of becoming their fullest selves through experiences that challenge and change their accepted, gendered behavior in subtle ways. The two most obvious examples are Mary’s vanity and Jem’s tears. Now, plenty of the women in Mary Barton are a bit vain, but Mary’s vanity is encompassing and self-deluding, softened only by Gaskell’s repeated attempts to remind the reader that Mary will cry when a baby dies (this is so she can save Mary at the end for the reader). In contrast, the men are sensitive and generous, and cry. Alot. The men are always weeping, and though they are manly tears, they are frightening to the women (which is within the scope of a properly gendered reaction to manly tears).

A tender young woman aspires to a higher match and is cruel in the face of manly tears. The poor young gallant is stricken with grief, and still can’t get laid. These mildly warped genders are the sign of a society warped by political economies gone bad, and by the inclusion of both sexes in a system Gaskell finds to be broken and unnatural. Where men must nurse the poor while the women meet rich young dandies in the lane, Gaskell’s novel is a portrayal of the evil an over-participation in the economy can be for women, and the unnaturalness of a system in which men cannot properly care for their families or pursue love. Industrial work, bone-breaking hours and the avoidance of them through dressmaking and marriage, the terrible terms of a contract for women’s labor and apprenticeship, men faced by repeated deaths of children and fainting women, by fires, and economic frustration — these are the conditions under which society crumbles into sad, genderless chaos.

The scene above, in which Mary tells Jem she cannot bear to see him cry (though she herself weeps a-plenty at his family’s deaths), and he — in his moment of grief — experiences a rather revolting (though perhaps natural?) emotional-physical arousal at her comfort, is the exact example of a situation which in any other Victorian novel would result in Mary swept into the tear-soaked arms of Jem and discussing when they should break the news of their engagement to the family mourning twin boys. But no, not here. The unnaturalness of Mary’s situation in her motherless existence, her lack of empathy, her vanity and materialism, and her proximity to industry create a situation in which her womanly instincts are perverted and cause pain, rather than comfort. A match which is so natural to the community is scorned by the upstart wench who values her looks and pouts at the mention of a match between her and the sweetest, manliest scalawag Gaskell could conjure.

Ultimately, Gaskell takes her dear sweet time in the first half of the novel to build a confused pathos, one in which all the readers may be horrified — but empathetic — at the sight of the Vainly Sympathetic Mary Barton and the Valiantly Weeping Jem Wilson. The havoc industry wreaks on the natural order of things is highlighted by the “acutely” intelligent and sallow-faced industry girls, and the economically frustrated, crying men.

And what Gaskell really wants to say is, fix that economy, because ain’t nobody got time for all that…

Cranford’s Poor Scanties: The Economy of Sexuality

“I’ll do it as you tell me, ma’am,’ said Martha; ‘but I like lads best.”


We felt very uncomfortable and shocked at this speech of Martha’s; yet I don’t think she meant any harm; and, on the whole, she attended very well to our directions…Martha, to be sure, had never ended her staring at the East Indian’s white turban, and brown complexion, and I saw that Miss Matilda shrunk away from him a little as he waited dinner.”

What struck me upon reading Cranford is the initial purity of the setting. Though to think of the womanly body as “lacking” a phallus rather than in possession of full sexuality in solitude is uncouth at this point in Feminism’s history, the absence of men in Cranford is seen as a lack. Though snug and womanly in their drawing rooms with their elegantly economical tea trays and card tables, the women of Cranford are lacking. They are not lacking kindness or gentility, but there is a lack of frankness and sexuality that can only be brought about by one kind of person in Cranford’s society: The Vulgar. T

In Cranford, The Vulgar are menfolk, and “ignorant” maid servants. The coarse and frank sexuality of Martha is a breath of fresh air in the quaint beginning of the novel. Martha’s sexuality is further heightened and highlighted by Gaskell by placing that scene so closely to the description of the Hindoo servants; the warmth of their skin, their exotic presence, coupled with the ignorant, hot, low-class sensuality of poor Martha seems to boldly embody the repressed sexuality, and — in Victorian society — the absent phallus. The men of Cranford cannot be the men of the world, and when the male, the vulgar, the sensual appears in the figure of Captain Brown, it is quickly tamed by a woman’s sickness and cut off by the great representation of masculinity, the loud, terrifying, industrial, capitalist train, speeding the death of a child and inadvertently emasculating Cranford further.

One can notice in the above quote that Martha, a woman “vulgarly” attuned to her own sexuality, is fascinated by the foreign servants (buying unpleasantly into the objectification and sexualization of dark complected peoples), while Miss Matty is horrified, repulsed by and shocked by the nearness of their bodies, the difference, the quiet existence of not only foreigners representative of non-Cranford repressed sexualitites, but of male servants not bound to the sexual codes of conduct with which Miss Matty is bound.

In these three characters Gaskell writes in a phallus for Cranford; in the absence of men, we find variations of masculinity in the vulgar, the servants, the exotic, the brown, the train — all that is meant to shock and remain mysterious in Victorian society. These Others serve as Cranford’s scanties, representing both the necessaries of a society and the primness of such hidden gems enfleshed in the subordinate classes.

Gaskell: An Opportunist, a Scalawag, a Professional

“Henceforward the sacred doors of home are closed upon her married life. We…caught occasional glimpses of brightness, and pleasant peaceful murmurs of sound…and we looked at each other, and gently said, ‘After a hard and long struggle — after many cares and many bitter sorrows — she is tasting happiness now!’ We thought of the slight astringencies of her character, and how they would turn to full ripe sweetness in the calm sunshine of domestic peace.”

No Eyre “But God’s ways are not as our ways!”

Gaskell is a scalawag.

This particular passage speaks volumes to the many negative reviews anyone will remember that has read an introduction Jane Eyre; namely, that Gaskell is a scalawag, and profited from her friend’s death by snapping up the opportunity to write a biography of her friend.

However, perhaps this is initial reaction is not quite fair, a caveat I could not have given before reading Martineau. The difficulty of becoming a woman author in the Victorian period did not rest solely on male publisher’s reluctance to publish women’s writing, nor on the difficulty of gaining a variety of experiences to stimulate creativity. Limited to the domestic sphere, and limited to travel accompanied by women and chaperoned by men, women had to turn inwards for novel-worthy inspiration, and outwards for a semblance of the travel and experience informing men’s writing. The intensity with which women writers pursued the psychologies of their characters and the full, living beings that occasionally emerged from the page (Villette’s strange and unreliable characters, for example) are evidence of the versatility and hard work one can see in Martineau’s extensive work, and — also — provide a basis for understanding Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte.

Gaskell, does not show her versatility in writing the biography, as much as she shows her novelistic impulse and desire to lionize her own friend. Though Martineau might be hard in her criticism of such a romanticization, Gaskell’s work serves to lionize one of the woman geniuses of her time period, while contributing to the body of work composed by Victorian women authors. Martineau’s authorial voice had the advantage of chameleonic professionalism, of an activist’s passion and a salesperson’s wheedle. Gaskell does not seem to possess — on an initial reading — a comparable versatility, though she seems to have gained greater fame for her novels than Martineau. Her attempts to connect to one of the greats through the composition of a biography, however, is a dang smart career move. Sadly, the fame of Charlotte Bronte dooms Gaskell’s attempts to lionize the dead genius, as the sentimental depiction of Bronte was known by many to be an exaggeration. Injecting normal affairs and marital concerns with Victorian sentimentality was a foolish move on Gaskell’s part.

Despite Gaskell’s frustrating prose, her attempts to preserve the reputation and further the fame of her deceased friend reveals a professional savvy and cultural briskness that has served to place Gaskell’s name in every introduction to a Charlotte Bronte novel; living in some fame and some infamy, Gaskell clearly managed to snag a commission of which Martineau would be jealous.


The (Death) of Charlotte Bronte

"The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored" by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) - Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1725. Licensed under Creative Commons. The restoration of the painting reveals that Branwell had originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, and later removed the self-portrait.

“The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored” by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) – Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1725. Licensed under Creative Commons. The restoration of the painting reveals that Branwell had originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, and later removed the self-portrait.

For being entitled The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography devotes a large amount of the story to narratives of death: first Mrs. Brontë, then Maria and Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne, Tabby, and, finally, Charlotte herself. In an age of nascent medical science, poor hygiene, and rampant, fatal communicable diseases, death was a fact of life for the Victorians; yet it was not without deep emotional significance. Gaskell’s accounts of the deaths of Branwell, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte all share striking commonalities. What defines these death narratives, and what do they tell us about Victorian culture?

During his life, Branwell becomes “dissipated,” buried in debts, and hopelessly addicted to opium. For years, his struggles with addiction afflict the sisters and their father, as they struggle to keep Branwell out of trouble and away from harming himself or others: “… he [Branwell] would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before morning…The sisters often listened for the report of a pistol in the dead of the night, till watchful eye and hearkening ear grew heavy and dull with the perpetual strain upon their nerves” (Gaskell 227). Yet despite his behavior and his addiction-related mental illness, death reveals the noble character that he still possessed. Gaskell writes, “I have heard from one who attended Branwell in his last illness, that he resolved on standing up to die. He had repeatedly said, that as long as there was life there was strength of will to do what it chose” (Gaskell 289). Gaskell’s narrative reveals a strong belief that one’s true character emerges at the moment of death. In his last moments, Branwell becomes a hero: resolved, courageous, and ready to face whatever might come next.

Emily’s death account shows a similar heroism in the face of fate. For the females of Gaskell’s narrative, the defining theme is independence until the final breath and the avoidance of burdening others: “She made no complaint; she would not endure questioning; she rejected sympathy and help” (Gaskell 290). Outwardly, she denied her illness and refused to see a doctor until it was too late. Though it seems foolish, Emily’s refusal to see a doctor probably did not hasten her death, given the unreliable nature of medical treatment.

Like Emily, the sense of hopelessness pervades Anne’s attitude towards medicine; however, though she knows her death is inevitable, “she was too unselfish to refuse trying means from which, if she herself had little hope of benefit, her friends might hereafter derive a mournful satisfaction” (304). Anne also tries to burden the healthy as little as possible; she was “the patientest, gentlest invalid that could be,” and “dependence and helplessness were ever with her a far sorer trial than hard, racking pain” (307).

Charlotte’s own death is born in the same kind of tragic courage against an inevitable human fate. Her illness is “still borne on in patient trust” even though she takes “stimulants” for her pain and departs in “low wandering delirium” (455). Her reflections on her sisters’ death are telling when compared to her last words. When Emily and Anne die, she warns herself, “These things make one feel, as well as know, that this world is not our abiding-place. We should not knit human ties too close, or clasp human affections too fondly. They must leave us, or we must leave them, one day” (Gaskell 290). Yet on her deathbed, she whispers to her husband, “I am not going to die, am I? He [God] will not separate us, we have been so happy” (455). As it is impossible not to be human, it is impossible for Charlotte not to love.

The tragedy of death in the Victorian culture, and the need for a “good death” narrative to console the living, reveal a society wrestling to define a concrete belief in the afterlife. In Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, Deborah Lutz writes that “intermingled with this need to hold onto the memory of the beloved was an anxiety that this matter might finally signify nothing and that death was simply meaningless annihilation. Unfolding this dialectic of doubt and its function in Victorian death culture leads to the evangelical ‘good death’…” (10). Lutz goes on to explain that the life and significance of the Brontes were preserved through relics. Gaskell’s death-surrounded biography led to the late Victorians’ sanctification and enshrinement of the Brontes’ parsonage, along with items touched by the deceased– down to the couch where Emily is believed to have died, and the children’s scribblings on the walls, preserved under glass (52-53). Gaskell’s portrayal of the Brontes’ “good deaths” empowered her eulogizing rhetoric, creating the romanticized image of the Brontes that the living remember today.

Works Cited

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Ed. Angus Easson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 February 2015.

In Defense of Henry Carson

In reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, I found myself inexplicably rooting for Henry Carson, the ostensible villain of the piece. He was, the poor lad, cursed by the author as a “gay, handsome young man,” rich, well read, and relatively charming (when he had a mind to be so) (117). It is apparent from the listing of his virtues that he must die.  He was not a steady man, such as Jem Wilson, nor a plain working man. This is his sin, from which there is no salvation.

Now, to be sure, I make my point a little two strongly. Carson does have serious flaws–his arrogance is repulsive, his treatment of the working class is abhorrent, and his treatment of Mary Barton herself is extremely unchivalrous. However, I might hope that this sins are treated as the sins of youth and responded to with grace, rather that murder. Gallagher’s Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton provides an excellent reading of the novel that accounts for the tragedy of John Barton, the poor worker who, by means of a system beyond his control and that he rails against, finds his life destroyed and worn down endlessly. Gallagher sees his tragedy as a touch of realism, fighting against the “sentimentality of Esther and Mary and the farce of Sally Leadbitter and Harry Carson.” She continues, “His interpretation, of course, immediately undercuts all the story’s romance…makes it merely a part of a larger social tragedy” (70). The reader naturally sympathizes with the tragic hero of John Barton, and who could not? He is a hard worker who, through forces beyond his control, loses his wife, his income, and his health. And yet, despite this, it is still his choice to turn to murder. The system broke him down, but it did not turn him to murder. But we forgive him this fault, because his poor, ugly, and downtrodden.  We do not forgive Carson his faults, though they be far less.

Carson’s damning moment is his caricature of the working class representatives, in which he “wrote a hasty quotation from the fat knight’s well-known speech in Henry IV” (123). The speech, claims Gallagher, comes from Act IV, Scene II, and is summed up by Falstaff’s claim that his men, scrawny, pale soldiers, are “good enough to toss; food for powder, food / for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better.” The Falstaff connection is strong. That is certainly one of the fat knight’s worse moment, just as it is Harry Carson’s. But it is impossibly to recall that speech without recalling an earlier,“If sack and sugar be a fault, /
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a / sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if / to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine / are to be loved… banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

For Henry to be truly villainous, I would like to see him offered Grace–perhaps in the form of marriage to Mary Barton–and reject it. Were he to offer her the life of a mistress, and she reply that they should instead wed he would have the chance to grow in wisdom, love, and humanity. In rejecting that choice, and turning only into himself (the sin of Gomorrah), we would see his true evil: a sinful narcissism, an idolatry of self beyond mere youthful ego-centrism. Instead, he is killed for being young, handsome, and rich–as much a victim of the system as John Barton–and he dies unmourned. Jem is right when he realizes that “a man’s a man,” but he fails to see that this category moves both ways (118). He very much has the right to talk to Henry Carson and Henry Carson very much has the right to live and repent. Gaskell’s novel offers free will only to the heroes. Its villains are, unfortunately, damned.

Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton.”The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Forom : 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. 62-87. Print

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. 2011. Kindle

Mary Barton. By David Smith

In chapter nine of Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell, through the mouth of John Barton, comments on the schematic layout of houses in London: “They’re sadly puzzled how to build houses though in London; there’d be an opening for a good steady master builder there, as know’d his business. For yo see the houses are many on’em built without any proper shape for a body to live in; some on em they’ve after thought would fall down, so they’ve stuck great ugly pillars out before ‘em” (146-147). This certainly illustrates the quaint uneducated working class perspective that Gaskell attempted to capture, adding a splash of humor to a depressing narrative of upper class callousness.

However, the question of city planning and architecture carries more than just a passing bearing on the sharp division of the classes. Freidrich Engels, in his essay “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844,” paints a vivid and disturbing portrait of the squalid conditions in the city of Manchester in which the poor subsisted. Engel continues, saying that “whenever a nook or corner was free, a house has been run up…without reference to the health or comfort of the inhabitants, with sole reference to the highest possible profit, on the principle that no hole is so bad but that some poor creature must take it who can pay for nothing better” (584). Engel contends that this frenzy to consume every available space for housing is driven by the bottom line, allowing the landowners and builders to minimize the conditions required to make a room habitable in order to maximize the profit they can extort. Every last square inch of real estate must be consumed; no one percent for art.

The contrasting ethos of John Barton and Freidrich Engels would be comical if not for the content. Barton marvels at the wasted space, the decorative pillars, and the sculptures decorating the lawns; he is completely oblivious of the luxury of aesthetic value. And how could he be familiar with such values anyway? Peasants like John Barton, when confronted with the privilege of space, conclude that poor planning and construction are to blame. It is an interesting study in ignorance and how inaccurate and unfortunate conclusions may be drawn from them.

But as I ponder it, another aspect of their poverty, which hitherto had not occurred to me, now arises. Gaskell goes to great lengths to provide a preponderance of proof of the plebian poverty which plagues the poor peasants. The poverty is seemingly limited to the purely physical requirements: food, medicine, employment, and so forth. But herein lies another aspect of their plight of poverty: education and thereby an appreciation for the aesthetic. I do not say that they were unaware of the beauty found in natural things, but it is perhaps the final death-knell to the poor’s humanity when they can find no beauty in the artistic endeavors of their fellow man. But poetry, art, music are all the accoutrements of life; the necessities must be present before aesthetic concerns may be addressed. Perhaps Gaskell is attempting a further plea to the more educated classes that were more likely to encounter her novel, that poverty in body is terrible enough, but poverty in soul and mind removes virtually all semblance of humanity, and possibly the divine.

Given the intense contrast between the rich and poor, the strange inversion of the dynamic of a poor person critiquing the wealthy on the grounds of aesthetic and architectural choices, I was intrigued by this one example of class tension. The inversion of the poor judging the rich not on economic or moral grounds was a refreshing and surprising respite for the usual resentment expressed by John Barton.

Engels, Freidrich. “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.”

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000. Print